Nazi troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, despite the best efforts of Captain Witold Pilecki and his fellow Polish soldiers. On November 9th of that same year, Witold and Major Wlodarkiewicz founded the Tajna Armia Polska (TAP or Polish Secret Army), an underground organization that eventually became consolidated with other resistance forces into The Home Army.
Not long after the formation of organized widespread Polish Resistance, its members began hearing reports of the conditions within the newly constructed Auschwitz Concentration Camp put into operation in the Spring of 1940. Those first reports originated with prisoners released from the camp and from civilians such as railroad employees and local residents.
In order to cut through the very troubling rumors and figure out exactly what was going on there, Pilecki came up with a bold plan- become a prisoner at Auschwitz. With a little convincing, his superiors eventually agreed to allow him to go.
In order to help protect his wife and children after he was captured, he took on the alias Tomasz Serafinski, much to the chagrin of the real Tomasz Serafinski who was thought to be dead at the time (hence why his papers and identity were chosen), but was not. Later, the real Tomasz had some trouble because of Pilecki using his papers and name (more on this in the Bonus Facts below).
According to Eleonora Ostrowska, owner of an apartment Pilecki was at when he was taken, when a Nazi roundup began (lapanka, where a city block would suddenly be closed off and most of the civilians inside would be rounded up and sent to slave labor camps and sometimes even just mass-executed on the spot), a member of the resistance came to help Pilecki hide. Instead, Ostrowska said “Witold rejected those opportunities and didn’t even try to hide in my flat.” She reported that soon, a German soldier knocked at the door and Pilecki whispered to her “Report that I have fulfilled the order,” and then opened the door and was taken by the soldier along with about 2,000 other Poles in Warsaw on September 19, 1940.
It is important to note here that he didn’t really know if he’d be sent to Auschwitz at this point. As Dr. Daniel Paliwoda noted of Pilecki’s capture, “Since the AB Aktion and roundups were still going on, the Nazis could have tortured and executed him in
occupied Warsaw’s Pawiak, Mokotów, or any other Gestapo-run prison. They could have taken him to Palmiry to murder him in the forest. At the very least, they could have sent him to a forced labor colony somewhere in Germany.”
While he was willingly surrendering with the hope of being sent to Auschwitz, Pilecki lamented the behavior of his fellow countrymen during the roundup. “What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles. All those picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep. A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.”
As he had hoped (perhaps the only person to ever hope such a thing), he was sent to Auschwitz. He later described his experience upon arrival:
We gave everything away into bags, to which respective numbers were tied. Here our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began. From that moment we became mere numbers – I wore the number 4859…
We were struck over the head not only by SS rifle butts, but by something far greater. Our concepts of law and order and of what was normal, all those ideas to which we had become accustomed on this Earth, were given a brutal kicking.
Pilecki also noted that one of the first indications that he observed that Auschwitz was not just a normal prison camp was the lack of food given to prisoners; in his estimate, the rations given to prisoners were “calculated in such a way that people would live for six weeks.” He also noted that a guard at the camp told him, “Whoever will live longer — it means he steals.”
Assessing the conditions inside Auschwitz was only part of Pilecki’s mission. He also took on responsibility for organizing a resistance force within the camp, the Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej (ZOW). The goals of ZOW included- improving inmate morale, distributing any extra food and clothing, setting up an intelligence network within the camp, training prisoners to eventually rise up against their guards and liberate Auschwitz, and getting news in and out of Auschwitz. Ensuring secrecy of the ZOW led Pilecki to create cells within the organization. He trusted the leaders of each cell to withstand interrogation by the guards, but even so each leader only knew the names of the handful of people under his command. This limited the risk to the entire organization should an informant tip off a guard or if a member was caught.
Pilecki’s first reports to the Polish government and Allied forces left the camp with released prisoners. But when releases became less common, passing reports on to the outside world depended largely on the success of prisoner escapes, such as one that occurred on June 20, 1942 where four Poles managed to dress up as members of the SS, weapons and all, and steal an SS car which they boldly drove out of the main gate of the camp.
A cobbled-together radio, built over the course of seven months as parts could be acquired, was used for a while in 1942 to transmit reports until “one of our fellow’s big mouth” resulted in the Nazis learning of the radio, forcing the group to dismantle it before they were caught red handed and executed.
Pilecki’s reports were the first to mention the use of Zyklon B gas, a poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas, and gas chambers used at the camp. He saw the first use of Zyklon B gas in early September 1941 when the Nazis used it to kill 850 Soviet POWs and Poles in Block 11 of Auschwitz I. He also learned of the gas chambers at Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, from other resistance members after construction of the camp began in October 1941. ZOW also managed to keep a pretty good running log of roughly the number of inmates being brought in to the camp and the estimated number of deaths, noting at one point, “Over a thousand a day from the new transports were gassed. The corpses were burnt in the new crematoria.”
All of the reports were sent to the Polish Government in Exile in London, and they in turn forwarded the information to other Allied forces. However, on the whole, the Allies thought the reports of mass killings, starvation, brutal and systemic torture, gas chambers, medical experimentation, etc. were wildly exaggerated and questioned the reliability of Pilecki’s reports. (Note: During Pilecki’s nearly three years there, several hundred thousand people were killed at Auschwitz and, beyond the death and horrific tortures, countless others were experimented on in a variety of ways by such individuals as the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele. All total, it is estimated that somewhere between 1 to 1.5 million people were killed at the camp.)
Significant doubt surrounding the accuracy of his reports meant Pilecki’s plan to bring about an uprising inside Auschwitz never came to fruition. Pilecki had managed to convince his network of resistance fighters inside the camp that they could successfully take control for a short while and escape if the Allies and Polish Underground provided support. He had envisioned airdrops of weapons and possibly even Allied soldiers invading the camp. However, the Allies never had any intention of such an operation and the local Polish resistance in Warsaw refused to attack due to the large number of German troops stationed nearby.
The Nazi guards began systematically eliminating members of the ZOW resistance in 1943 and so, with his reports being ignored, Pilecki decided he needed to plead his case in person for intervention in Auschwitz.
In April of 1943, he got his chance. After handing over leadership of ZOW to his top deputies, he and two others were assigned the night shift at a bakery which was located outside the camp’s perimeter fence. At an opportune moment on the night of the 26th, they managed to overpower a guard and cut the phone lines. The three men then made a run for it out of the back of the bakery. As they ran, Pilecki stated, “Shots were fired behind us. How fast we were running, it is hard to describe. We were tearing the air into rags by quick movements of our hands.”
It should be noted that anyone caught helping an Auschwitz escapee would be killed along with the escaped prisoner, something the local populace knew well. Further, the 40 square kilometers around Auschwitz were extremely heavily patrolled and the escapees’ shaved heads, tattered clothes, and gaunt appearance would give them away in a second to anyone who saw them. Despite this, all three not only survived the initial escape, but managed to get to safety without being recaptured.
Unfortunately, Pilecki’s plan to garner support for liberating Auschwitz never materialized. After arriving at the headquarters of the Home Army on August 25, 1943 and desperately pleading his case for the Home Army to put all efforts into liberating Auschwitz, he left feeling “bitter and disappointed” when the idea was discarded as being too risky. In his final report on Auschwitz, he further vented his frustration on his superiors “cowardliness.”
After this, Pilecki continued to fight for the Home Army, as well as trying to aid ZOW in any way he could from the outside. He also played a role in the Warsaw Uprising that began in August of 1944, during which he was captured by German troops in October of that year and spent the rest of World War II as a POW.
Pilecki wrote his final version of his report on Auschwitz (later published in a book titled:The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery) after the war while spending time in Italy under the 2nd Polish Corps before being ordered back to Poland by General Wladyslaw Anders to gather intelligence on communist activities in Poland. You see, the invading Germans had been replaced by another occupying power- the Soviet backed Polish Committee of National Liberation. This was a puppet provisional government setup on July 22, 1944 in opposition to the Polish Government in Exile, the latter of which was supported by the majority of Polish people and the West.
During his two years at this post, he managed to, among many other things, gather documented proof that the voting results of the People’s Referendum of 1946 were heavily falsified by the communists. Unfortunately, there was little the Polish Government in Exile could do. Even when his cover was blown in July of 1946, Pilecki soldiered on and refused to leave the country, continuing his work collecting documented evidence of the many atrocities against the Polish people being committed by the Soviets and their puppet government in Poland.
For this, he was ultimately arrested on May 7, 1947 by the Ministry of Public Security. He was extensively tortured for many months after, including having his fingernails ripped off and ribs and nose broken. He later told his wife of his life in this particular prison, “Oświęcim [Auschwitz] compared with them was just a trifle.”
Finally, he was given a show trial. When fellow survivors of Auschwitz pled with then Prime Minister of Poland, Józef Cyrankiewicz (himself a survivor of Auschwitz and member of a resistance in the prison), for the release of Pilecki, instead he went the other way and wrote to the judge, telling him to throw out record of Pilecki’s time as a prisoner in Auschwitz. This was a key piece of evidence in Pilecki’s favor given one of the things he was being accused of was being a German collaborator during the war.
And so it was that as part of a crackdown by the new Polish government against former members of the Home Army resistance, Pilecki was convicted of being a German collaborator and a spy for the West, among many other charges, ultimately sentenced to death via a gunshot to his head. The sentence was carried out on May 25, 1948 by Sergeant Piotr Smietanski, “The Butcher of Mokotow Prison.” From then on, mention of Pilecki’s name and numerous heroic acts were censored in Poland, something that wasn’t changed until 1989 when the communist Polish government was overthrown.
Witold Pilecki’s last known words were reportedly, “Long live free Poland.”
- You might think it strange that Pilecki frequently, quite willingly, threw himself into incredibly dangerous situations despite the fact that he had a wife and kids back home. Polish actor Marek Probosz, who studied Pilecki extensively before portraying him in The Death of Captain Pilecki, stated of this, “Human beings were the most precious thing for Pilecki, and especially those who were oppressed. He would do anything to liberate them, to help them.” Mirroring this sentiment, Pilecki’s son, Andrzej later said his father “would write that we should live worthwhile lives, to respect others and nature. He wrote to my sister to watch out for every little ladybug, to not step on it but place it instead on a leaf because everything has been created for a reason. ‘Love nature.’ He instructed us like this in his letters.” It wasn’t just his children he taught to respect life at all levels. Two years after Pilecki was executed, and at a time when his family was struggling because of it, a man approached Pilecki’s teenage son and stated, “I was in prison [as a guard] with your father. I want to help you because your father was a saint.. Under his influence, I changed my life. I do not harm anyone anymore.”
- As mentioned, the real Tomasz Serafinski was not dead, as Pilecki had thought when he took his papers and assumed Tomasz’ identity to be captured. After Pilecki’s escape from Auschwitz, the real Tomasz was arrested on December 25, 1943 for having escaped from Auschwitz. He was then investigated for a few weeks, including a fair amount of pretty brutal strong arming, but was finally released on January 14, 1944 when it was determined he was not, in fact, the same individual who had escaped from Auschwitz. Afterwards, Pilecki and Tomasz actually became friends, and though Pilecki was killed, according to Jacek Pawlowicz, “That friendship is alive to this day, because Andrzej Pilecki visits their family and is very welcome there.”
- In the early 2000s, certain surviving officials who were involved in Pilecki’s trial, including the prosecutor, Czeslaw Lapinski, were put up on charges for being accomplices in the murder of Witold Pilecki.
- Pilecki also fought in WWI in the then newly formed Polish army. After that, he fought in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921).
- At one point while within Auschwitz, Pilecki and his fellow ZOW members managed to cultivate typhus and infect various SS-personnel.